St. Thomas’ unprecedented move from Division III to Division I athletics will still be in its infancy — with tickets in demand — on Oct. 3 when the St. Cloud State men’s hockey team travels to St. Paul to face the Tommies.
Actually, they’ll be in Mendota Heights, the site of St. Thomas Ice Arena, the 1,000-seat venue that the Tommies share with St. Thomas Academy.
Or maybe the teams will meet in Minneapolis, at either the 10,000-seat 3M Arena at Mariucci or 3,400-seat Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus. Other arenas in the Twin Cities could be in play, as well.
Yes, the situation is fluid, and, to a lesser extent, the same holds true for the two other major revenue-producing sports the Tommies compete in — men’s basketball and football.
St. Thomas athletics director Phil Esten and the school’s other top officials were well aware when requesting to make the move to Division I that an upgrade in some of its facilities would be needed. Those upgrades were highlighted in a business plan presented to the NCAA, as well as to their new conferences for hockey (Central Collegiate Hockey Association), basketball (Summit League) and football (Pioneer League).
The goal of providing the best possible experience for fans and student-athletes coincides with the need for the added revenue that makes competing at the highest level feasible.
St. Thomas did not need to meet any capacity minimums for any of their athletics venues from the NCAA or any of three conferences to win its bid to move up. But as Esten pointed out, “There certainly are going to be expectations as we proceed down this road.”
CCHA Commissioner Don Lucia and Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple both accepted the Tommies with open arms, knowing that a plan is in place to upgrade facilities.
“We looked at it as kind of an investment,” Lucia said. “They are going to end up with some better facilities than they already have, it’s just going to take some time. Just like our new conference wants to grow and prosper, St. Thomas is the same way.
“They’ll have that financial commitment and backing and fundraising ability to update their facilities. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we’re very confident it is going to happen in the next few years.”
Douple talked of things being done in steps, with a five-year plan in place that will address, among other things, the possibility of adding to the Tommies’ home for basketball, the 2,000-seat Schoenecker Arena.
“Obviously, we talked about all the facilities, and the basics are there for training,” Douple said in regard to basketball and the other sports that will compete in the Summit League. “And that is so key. As they grow their program, they may do some things to add more seats or build new arenas.”
While changes are coming, Esten said it will take a season or two before the university has a clear picture of what its priorities will be.
“We’ll be better able to see where demand is, where gaps are, and how we can better fill demand,” he said. “A year from now, we’ll be a lot smarter than we are today, after going through home events, away events and visiting other venues to see who’s got advantages and disadvantages in the conference.
“That said, I think one of the things we’ll have to look at more than others is our hockey situation.’’
The following is a closer look at the three sports — and their venues — that are likely to see the most change due to the move to Division I.
St. Thomas Ice Arena served the Tommies well as a Division III school, but it simply doesn’t meet the needs of a Division I program. Every other school in the CCHA plays in an arena with at least 2,500 seats. And when it comes to hockey, the Tommies have their sights on being competitive against the likes of the Gophers, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State as well, and facilities will play a major role in being able to recruit against those schools.
“It’s hard to say exactly what that will be,” Esten said of the next home for the men’s program, “whether it would be a shared facility or a new St. Thomas facility off campus.”
In the meantime, Esten said it is possible that one or more marquee games could be played at an alternate site this season and in future seasons, but he added that no discussions have taken place to date. Along with hosting St. Cloud State in their opening weekend, the Tommies will have home games against conference opponents Minnesota State Mankato and Bemidji State.
“Whether it’s the University of Minnesota, any of the larger professional arenas in the Twin Cities or municipal-owned facilities, I think there are a lot of really neat options for us,” Esten said. “That’s if it makes sense; if the ice is open at that time, if the partnership makes sense, if they’re interested, if we’re interested, then we can progress with the conversation.”
Esten said St. Thomas will look at public-private partnerships, off-campus facilities and any other options that make sense.
Lucia believes that the Tommies should focus on making the best of their current arena until a new home is built or found.
“I told Phil that I am completely comfortable with them playing in that facility as a short-term facility,” Lucia said. “I think it makes more sense to play in one facility rather than bounce around to two or three facilities around the Twin Cities.
“I’m not concerned; it’s a nice arena. They’ll spruce it up nice and it will be a nice home-ice atmosphere.”
With its 2,000 seats, Schoenecker Arena is one of smallest venues in the Summit League. Only Kansas City plays in a smaller arena (1,500). While expansion might be inevitable, the question is, how big do they go?
“You try to find the sweet spot from a capacity standpoint,” Esten said. “You’d rather have a slightly smaller facility that you fill with regularity than a larger facility you don’t fill with regularity — even if you are able to draw a little higher attendance from time to time.
“I think there is something to be said for the notion of scarcity. Also, when you have a full arena or stadium, there is an X factor there. It becomes a home-court, home-field, home-ice advantage, and that becomes an important part of the collegiate experience.”
According to Douple, most mid-major men’s basketball programs draw an average of 2,500 to 3,500 fans a game.
“I’m sure St. Thomas will look at their footprint to determine if they can expand,” he said, “but it’s more important for them to sell out what they have.”
“Once we demonstrate we can fill it with regularity and we’ve got a demand for tickets, then we’ll look at what it will take to expand or do something else,” he said.
O’Shaughnessy Stadium, in the heart of campus, was built in 1947 and has provided a quality experience for Tommies fans and a decided home-field advantage for the football team. Its 5,000 seats fits in well with the other football stadiums in the Pioneer Football League, with most having a capacity of between 5,000 and 6,000 fans.
But how long the Tommies plan to stay in the conference, which is the only non-scholarship conference in Division I football, is a factor in their future stadium plans. Should they go a more traditional route for a conference and recruit Division I-caliber talent, 5,000 seats might not be sufficient.
A new stadium is not an option, but adding on to O’Shaughnessy could be.
“There’s a big enough footprint that it’s certainly feasible to think about whether it could accommodate more fans than it does,” Esten said. “We don’t need a 15,000-20,000 seat stadium. There are other things that are equally important — making sure the fan experience is high quality.
“Maybe the press box and other game operations need to be addressed. I think it was about six years ago that we hosted the (St. John’s) Johnnies on campus and there were about 12,000 in attendance that day. But first and foremost, we want to make sure the fans have a great experience.”
Similarly, the Tommies know they will have to impress the Division I student-athletes in all sports with what they have to offer in terms of both competition and training facilities.
“The ability of recruits to jump online and view facilities across the country makes it easier for them to assess who has what and who doesn’t have what,” Esten said. “Very seldom does (a school) have everything, but a student-athlete is going to look for what best fits their interests and skills and what they need for a fulfilling experience.
“Student-athletes spend as much or more time training and practicing as they do competing. Because we are in a neighborhood, a lot of our competition facilities are also going to be our practice facilities. So that’s where we need to be really thoughtful on how we use our athletic space.”
PAYING THE BILLS
St. Thomas’ aforementioned business plan would not have been met with as much optimism if its wish list did not include a plan for making it all add up financially.
“We have some new expenses that we haven’t had before,” Esten said. “Instead of traveling a couple of miles in the MIAC, we’ll be traveling a couple of hours. We have scholarship expenses that we haven’t had in the past. Plus, some additional staff members.
“So we have to weigh that with what our revenues will be. Our revenues will come from three buckets — game-day revenue, corporate partnerships and fundraising.”
From a facilities standpoint, the fundraising “bucket” will need to be a deep one. The move to Division I would not have become reality without a level of certainty that the deep pockets of various alumni have their checkbooks at the ready.
“They’re a private school; they are used to fundraising,” Lucia said. “That’s what they do.”
Ben Fraser was hired a year ago as the senior associate athletics director for development to spearhead fundraising, and he will oversee the Tommie Athletic Fund, which was created last year.
Programs are in place for those interested in providing various levels of financial support. Included is an endowed scholarship program. A minimum of $500,000 will finance a scholarship in perpetuity.
“It’s an opportunity for us to engage in meaningful conversation with alumni and donors and others who are interested in investing in the impact we can have on student-athletes,” Esten said of the fundraising aspect of the equation. “We align the interests that various donors have with impact we can have, and you find a really neat relationship.”